National News

Jefferson Descendants Reflect on Sally Hemings Exhibit

Posted June 16, 2018 3:22 p.m. EDT

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Hundreds of people count themselves as descendants of Thomas Jefferson. And their numbers grew substantially after a DNA test in 1998 bolstered the case for Jefferson’s paternity of the children of Sally Hemings, his slave. That revelation spawned a feud between Hemings and Jefferson descendants over who would be allowed at sprawling Jefferson meetings. To this day, some white descendants of Jefferson deny that he had a sexual relationship with Hemings.

Now, a new exhibit on Hemings opening Saturday highlights how much Monticello has changed. Jefferson’s slaves, once ignored, now have the spotlight.

Many people who trace their roots back to the enslaved community at Monticello are expected to attend the opening of the new exhibit, along with some of the white descendants of Jefferson’s acknowledged family.

Three descendants share, in their own words, what the changes at Monticello mean to them. The following interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

— Julius “Calvin” Jefferson

A retired archivist at the National Archives who grew up in Washington, D.C.

Mama’s last name was Jefferson. Twenty years ago, my mother’s friend called her up and said that people were looking for the descendants of the slave community at Monticello. At first, we were told we had no connection. But later it turned out that my third great-grandfather Robert Hughes is the great-grandson of George and Ursula Granger, the first enslaved people that Thomas Jefferson bought when he married Martha. He was also the great-grandson of Elizabeth Hemings, Sally Hemings’ mother.

They were there at the beginning of the country. When you are of African descent, you are told that we had nothing to do with that. I’ve realized that members of my family had a lot to do with that. The contributions that the slave community did at this one plantation afforded Thomas Jefferson the leisure to be the genius that he became.

I was always interested in history. I retired from the National Archives. After my second marriage went bad, I decided to move to Charlottesville to really finish doing the research on my family.

Being a slave owner, no matter how you cut it, that’s a crime against humanity. But T.J. justified it in his mind. Slavery was legal, and he believed in the rule of law. Sometimes, at the Monticello reunions, we get into arguments about it. Some people believe slavery is slavery, and no matter what you say, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. They are not going to look at the personal relationships between Thomas Jefferson and his slaves.

I really believe that Thomas Jefferson believed that all men were created equal.

— Brenda Yurkoski

A semiretired caregiver who grew up in Ohio

I’ve always known the family story, my entire life. I don’t want to misquote my father, but he said something like, “This is something we know, but people will never believe you.” In history class, we were talking about Thomas Jefferson, and I said, “I’m related to him.” The reaction was laughter, and therefore embarrassment.

The first time I visited Monticello, I had this sense of excitement. There were these high ceilings, all the treasures he had displayed. Then someone asked, “Didn’t Thomas Jefferson have some children with slaves?” The guide said, “Absolutely not. It’s just rumor.” I thought, “Shame on you.” I wanted to turn around and leave.

Over the years, I did return. I went for the sleepover in the slave cabins. Anyone who participates in something like that wants this “out of the world” experience, like your ancestors might whisper something to you. I wanted that, so badly. Maybe too much. I didn’t feel this great connection to my ancestors that I wanted to feel.

But then I got to participate in an archaeological dig at Monticello. We were trekking through the woods in an area that is off limits to visitors. One of the archaeologists pointed up the hill to an area where Elizabeth Hemings’ house was. Standing there in the woods with two of my distant cousins who also descended from Elizabeth Hemings, to me, was an experience. We all looked at each other and thought, “If she could see us here today.”

For the descendant community, it gets a little old: “Sally Hemings. Sally Hemings.” Other slave descendants have richer stories. But she is the biggest draw because she is synonymous with Thomas Jefferson, almost. She was part of this family that had its own story of privilege. They were still slaves, but they were treated differently than other slaves.

If I could ask Thomas Jefferson anything, I’d ask, “Did you have feelings for Sally?” Because he left nothing behind. This man wrote everything down. Everything. He knew that people would be looking back at him. He wanted that. But there was nothing about her. It hurts. As descendants, and because of his character, we want to believe that it wasn’t just a slave-master rape situation. I don’t know why we want to believe that. But we do. We just do.

For everyone who will attend the opening, they have to have a sense of pride, or they wouldn’t be there. But I have people in my family who don’t want to have anything to do with this. One of my dad’s sisters did not want to talk about the Jefferson thing at all. Aunt Alice was a proud black woman and she felt, “Why would I want to embrace that legacy? He owned her.” She couldn’t get past that. But I look at it as, “Sally Hemings accomplished something amazing for her children, which was freedom.”

The idea that they’re finally saying it, loudly and clearly, that Thomas Jefferson is the father of Sally Hemings’s children, I never thought it would happen.

— David Works

A software performance engineer who lives in Colorado

Most of us on the white side started out in the Monticello Association, which still exists. Their purpose is to take care of the Jefferson family graveyard up on the mountaintop.

After the DNA test came out, my brother and I thought the Hemingses were trying to muscle their way into the graveyard. We felt like we were being railroaded. But once I started listening to them, I realized that most of them weren’t interested in the graveyard at all. They just wanted to be recognized as descendants. Mama Shay (Banks-Young a descendant of Sally Hemings) said, “Why would I want to be buried in the master’s graveyard?”

There’s a whole lot of good that happens when people talk to each other and get beyond their assumptions.

I apologized to the Hemingses for my bad behavior and later, I came to realize that their story had a lot of merit.

After that, the rest of the white family basically cut me off. We drew these lines and started fighting with each other. I was on one side. My brother was on the other.

The Hemingses held a family reunion at Monticello in 2002 and 2003. My father and I were invited, and we went. A lot of people were thinking, “How are we all going to get along?” We landed on an idea of a more inclusive thing that isn’t ruled by descendancy. We had a reunion in 2007 where we basically threw open the doors not just to family descendants, but descendants of workmen who had been at Monticello, anybody that sounded like they belonged. We had 250 people there and it was fantastic. We started a whole new organization of the descendants of slaves and the descendants of slave owners.

Since then, I’ve actually resigned my life membership to the Monticello Association. I mean, how do I look my black cousins in the face and say, “Yeah, I still belong to this organization that doesn’t like you?”

Ten years ago, my family went through a very bad tragedy. We got shot up coming out of church. We lost two daughters. I was in the hospital for nine days. Mama Shay came to the hospital. My cousin Linda Carr-Kraft came, who brought dirt from the graveyard at Monticello, which I sprinkled in the graves of my daughters.

Because he is a founding father, we do have this tendency as Americans to put Thomas Jefferson on a pedestal. Some think, “If Jefferson gets knocked down a peg or two, then I am knocked down a peg or two.” That just isn’t healthy thinking. Jefferson is a guy that said, “All men are created equal,” but kept slaves when others were freeing them.

By sticking our heads in the sand and saying Jefferson was this virginal God-like person who never did anything wrong, that’s just silly. Once we realize that we’re all human beings, including Thomas Jefferson, we can admit that we have made mistakes, and also be willing to give other people a break for their mistakes. That’s called grace.